2017-05-20 / News

Mackinac Bridge To Close to Motorists During Labor Day Walk

By Kevin R. Hess

The Mackinac Bridge will be closed to all vehicles except school buses and emergency vehicles during the Labor Day bridge walk September 4, as a crowd safety precaution. The move to open the bridge only to pedestrians between 6:30 a.m. and noon that day comes at the advice of the Michigan State Police and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Vehicular traffic will resume at noon.

Typically, the northbound lanes of the bridge have been used for walkers, while the southbound lanes continued to be open to vehicle traffic. On average, 9,000 vehicles cross the bridge during the event hours, many of them carrying participants in the walk.

During a special Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA) meeting Tuesday, May 16, at Little Bear East Arena in St. Ignace, bridge authority members heard recommendations from the police agencies. Captain Chris Kelenske of the state police Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division and Detective First Lieutenant Brian Budde of the Michigan Intelligence Operations Center cited recent terrorist attacks, both globally and domestically, as reasons for the recommendations. Attacks in Nice and London were given as examples, as were domestic incidents, such as in November at Ohio State University, where a student drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians and then stabbed multiple people. Captain Kelenske said this type of attack is becoming more commonplace and encouraged among terrorist groups. There have been no credible threats specific to the Bridge Walk, Lt. Budde said, but these recommendations would help ensure safety. Between 30,000 and 60,000 walkers participate in the event each year.

In addition to the recommendation to close the northbound lanes to traffic, Captain Kelenske recommended that organizers increase state police presence at the event for additional security.

Discussions on this issue began about a year ago, around the time of a vehicle-ramming attack that took place in Nice, France, said Mike Baker, a security advisor with Homeland Security.

“The only way to guarantee safety is to cancel the event, but we don’t want to do that,” he said.

The Mackinac Bridge Authority approved the recommendations, with member Matthew McLogan saying that it properly balances the need for keeping people safe while still allowing people to enjoy the event and the cities of Mackinaw City and St. Ignace to still benefit.

“This is about safety first,” said Mr. McLogan.

Mackinaw City Village President Robert Heilman asked how they planned to deal with the traffic that could become backed up in Mackinaw City or St. Ignace for those five and a half hours. Mackinaw City, said Mr. Heilman, will already be packed with traffic because of the event. Bob Sweeney, executive secretary of the bridge authority, said they would educate the public in advance about the closure so that those planning to use the bridge will be prepared to wait to do so until it is reopened. They plan to use message boards throughout interstates and major highways, as well as the Michigan Department of Transportation LED signs. They are also working on plans to be able to provide water and snacks to those waiting to cross.

“Many of the cars who often cross the bridge during that time do so to drop people off,” said Mr. Sweeney. “Now those people will have to use the shuttle to cross.”

Paul Michalak, president of Mackinaw Trolley Company, asked if his private company would still be allowed to be used as a shuttle for the event. Captain Kelenske said that any private company would need to be properly vetted and approved, but that it is highly likely that Mackinaw Trolley could continue to offer its services.

There was no other public comment offered.

MBA Chairman Bill Gnodtke acknowledged that there were still a lot of details to be worked out, but that making this decision now gives organizers time to properly prepare and adjust. The special meeting was called so the MBA could take action and allow for more time. The next scheduled MBA meeting would not have been until July.

“This doubles the amount of time we have to prepare,” said Mr. Gnodtke. “This is a work in progress, and we want to be cognizant of the economic impact. The sooner we start, the more time we have to get the word out.”

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